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Forrest “Frosty” Thomas, Inventor of the Knuckleball, Has a Westchester Connection

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This is a baseball story, told purposely in a summer of pandemic, when the lethal capriciousness of COVID-19 has all but shuttered the Great American Pastime. It’s about Forrest “Frosty” Thomas, a right-handed pitcher who played in exactly two games for the Detroit Tigers in 1905 — and was knocked out of the box in each of them. His lifetime Major League record is no wins, one loss.

Chances are better than even that you never heard of him, though he deserves (albeit long-overdue) credit for inventing the knuckleball, a notoriously bewildering pitch that is devoid of spin and flutters like a butterfly.

Frosty also happened to be an uncle of my late mother-in-law, who resided for many years in Larchmont and figures in this story. More about that later.

Frosty was born in 1881 in rural Missouri. At the age of 22, the six-foot, 185-pounder signed up with the Minneapolis Millers, a storied Minor League franchise in the American Association.

Thomas photo via Wikimedia; card via AdobeStock

Frosty made his mark early on. Pitching for the Millers in 1904, he logged 329 innings and won 21 games. He was so good that a Minneapolis sportswriter dubbed him the “candy doll of the club and invincible.” His success earned him a shot with Detroit in 1905 — the same year, as it happened, the Tigers brought up a surly 18-year-old kid named Ty Cobb, who would go on to become the most prolific hitter of all time.

The Tigers were a decent team in 1905, no thanks to Frosty, whose second, and last, pitching appearance was on May 6, when he was bombed in a 9-4 loss to the St. Louis Browns. The Tigers dumped him not long after that — an unfair demotion, according to a brief item in the Minneapolis Journal. “There is a feeling abroad that [sic] in Minneapolis that Detroit has not given Thomas a chance to show his worth,” the newspaper wrote.

Frosty never got another shot at the big time — though he continued on with the Millers and a few other Minor League teams until he retired, in 1916. I doubt he made more than $1,500 in any one season, probably a lot less.

However, he left behind one very important contribution to baseball: the creation of the knuckleball.

The knuckleball is difficult to hit, hard to catch, and almost impossible to throw with consistent accuracy. Few pitchers have mastered it. “You need the fingers of a safecracker and the mind of a Zen Buddhist to throw it,” said Jim Bouton, who late in his career had varying degrees of success as a knuckleball pitcher. Bob Uecker, the former catcher, said, “The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and pick it up.”

The man reputed to be the first successful knuckleball pitcher is Eddie Cicotte, whose prowess earned him the nickname “Knuckles.” He achieved lasting infamy as one of eight members of the Chicago White Sox who threw the 1919 World Series.

Photo by Stefan Radtke

“He was so good that a Minneapolis sportswriter dubbed him the ‘candy doll of the club and invincible.’”

But Cicotte did not invent the knuckleball. Frosty did — and at least three newspaper articles published in the early part of the 20th century give him the credit. Cicotte either learned the pitch directly from Frosty, or Frosty taught the knuckleball to another pitcher, Ed Summers, who then passed it on to Cicotte. A piece in the March 24, 1908 edition of the Detroit Free Press reported that “a former Tiger…is the really truly inventor of the style of sling-shotting that the baseballists are most discussing at the present time. This man is Frosty Thomas.”

Unfortunately, Thomas never gained command of the knuckleball himself. “The delivery has brought no great fame or advancement to its inventor,” the Detroit paper wrote. “He lasted only a few minutes with Detroit.”

Eventually, Frosty went home to Missouri. He went to college, studied medicine, and developed an interest in psychiatry. Now, he was called “Doc.”

In the early 1920s, my future mother-in-law contracted polio and became paralyzed on her left side. The crafty creator of the knuckleball drew on his studies of mind over matter and personally treated her with a form of tough love.

Not believing in braces or crutches, he prescribed a vigorous exercise regimen. Tying the little girl’s right hand behind her back, he would taunt her mercilessly, angering her to the point where she would try to kick him or strike at him with her paralyzed left hand.

Amazingly, it worked. Eventually she was able to walk again.

And there was joy in Mudville.

The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think at edit@westchestermagazine.com

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